Wednesday, March 7, 2012

A Love Letter to Peyton Manning

January 2, 1998. That's the day I learned you existed. You probably remember that day - Tennessee Vols vs Nebraska Cornhuskers in the Orange Bowl. You lost 42-17, and your coach let your backup finish the game. They re-aired that game on the Big Ten Network last fall, and I watched it again because I missed you that much. It made me laugh and it made me sad, because you looked exactly the same.

I was 16 when I watched that game live with my dad. "Colts have the number one pick. Let's go shopping!" he said. I wanted Ryan Leaf. When they chose you instead, it made me angry.

Back then it was Reggie Miller's face plastered all around central Indiana. The Pacers were always competitive and clutch and we loved them. We smuggled a tiny TV into our high school graduation to watch the playoffs in 2000. We were desperate for Reggie to win a championship. He never did.

Even in the midst of the basketball crazies, I was a Colts fan before it was cool. Back when "watching" a game on Sunday meant huddling around a radio because they weren't good enough to overcome TV blackouts. Back when winning was a fun and novel thing that no one took for granted and Jim Harbaugh was the most amazing hero we could imagine. I think those of us who were fans before never took winning for granted. We were always a little in awe of how much things had changed.

I remember the moment I changed my mind about you. November 11, 2001 Colts vs Dolphins in the old RCA dome. It was the first time I ever saw you play in person. They broke your jaw, but you finished the game and damn near won it anyway. I trusted you after that. I wanted you on the team. I wanted you to win. Desperately.

I remember the first time I realized that the Patriots hated the Colts as much as the Colts hated the Patriots. It was exhilarating.

I think my favorite sports memory of all time is the AFC Championship Game. You know the one. It started out just like all the other times the Patriots and Colts met in the playoffs. Patriots scoring early and often, and soon the game looked completely out of hand.

But this time it wasn't.

I'll never forget how you picked the Patriots apart in the second half. How you became more than human for just a few minutes. How you took the lead with about a minute to go... and then sat on the sidelines with your head down, unable to watch. I peeked between my fingers because I was afraid, too.

When Brady threw the interception to end the game, I didn't jump up and down or scream. I just burst into tears. By then we loved you that much. Now your face was plastered all around our state, and we adopted you as our own and wore your colors. You were our champion. And now, finally, everyone else could see it, too.

Do you know how much Indy loves you, Peyton Manning? Did you read this and start to doubt? I mean, it was an interesting read, but do you believe what he said was true? If we're not begging or clinging to you now, it's not that we don't want you to stay - it's that we want your story to have a happy ending, even if it can't be with us. We want you to win. We want you to reach your highest potential and prove you're the greatest who ever played the game. We're 100% behind you to become just a little more than human one last time. Whatever happens next, you will always be our guy.

At least now we don't have to wonder. Now, we can move on, start to heal, look forward to what comes next. We'll be nice to the new kid, 'cause I think you'd want us to be, and because that's just who we are. But we'll feel a little guilty at first. Like we're being forced to start dating again before we're really ready.

After all, we invited you into our houses on average 17 Sundays a year for 14 years. I've spent more time with you than most of my actual relatives.

And what's not fair is that we never got to say goodbye - never got the 'one last time' to clap and yell and show appreciation. The last time we saw you in uniform, you were giving the stink-eye to Coach Caldwell for calling that stupid timeout against the Jets.

I hate that this is my last memory of you.

It's not fair. Not fair at all.

No chance to say thank you, to charge the stadium with all of the emotion and appreciation we've felt for the last 14 years. FOURTEEN YEARS. You gave us 14 years of you life, and yes you were well paid for it, but it was never about the money. Anyone who's paid attention knows that, and that's why it sucks.

Thank you for wanting to be a Colt in 1998 when there was really no good reason for it. Thank you for all the years you wanted to stay. Without you, there would be no new stadium. Without you, there would have been no Superbowl - hell, there might not even be a team. Without you, downtown wouldn't have developed the way it has, Indy's entire economy would be different - God only knows what hellish Back to the Future II alternate reality we'd be living in without you. I know it's only football, and football is only a game - but your presence here impacted real people with real lives, and nothing will ever change that. We all share those benefits, and all those memories.

Thank you for not only making us look good, but for actually making us better. I can think of no higher compliment than that. You were a role model to us, you inspired us, you gave back generously to the community, you represented yourself and us better than we could have ever asked or expected.

Now if we could just ask one more thing - please, I'm begging you - don't let Marshall go to Notre Dame.